CHAMPAIGN — At a meeting Friday morning, the Champaign City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that gives the mayor and city manager certain emergency powers in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It allows them to suspend licenses for special events and restrict public access to city buildings, which the city announced later Friday it would be doing for its police department, fire stations, public works department and the City Building.
Payment due dates may also be also be adjusted, and late fees may be waived.
“I don’t want anybody to come into the City Building because they have a bill to pay and either make any of us sick or potentially be exposed to the virus because they needed to pay a city bill,” City Manager Dorothy David said.
The ordinance also gives David more power to negotiate directly with unions if too many workers get sick and shifts need to change or be extended.
“Ordinarily, those kinds of things are negotiated in a bargaining agreement,” David said. “But in urgency, on a very practical level, I may need the authority to sit down with bargaining-unit leadership, reach a memorandum of understanding, put that in place, and then notify the city council that I’ve done it.”
And the ordinance gives the city manager more flexibility to make emergency purchases.
“I’m not talking about, we need to buy Clorox wipes to disinfect offices,” David said. “I’m talking about in the event that suddenly more N95 masks are actually available and we could procure them. We need to be able to procure them quickly.”
City attorney Fred Stavins noted that the emergency ordinance doesn’t compel any particular actions, which would need to be approved by the city council at its next meeting.
“The ordinance contemplates a wide range of emergency situations,” he said. “Whether any of these steps will be necessary, other than the cancellation of some meetings and the necessity to deal with personnel issues, including work-at-home issues, and the ability to respond to the needs of our fire and police departments, is not completely known at this time.”
The emergency ordinance also gives the mayor some more far-reaching powers, including imposing a curfew, limiting the use of water, taking possession of property, restricting the sale of firearms and closing businesses.
These have been part of the city code since at least 2006, Stavins said, and the city doesn’t plan to use them.
“These are parroting what’s in the state statutes,” Stavins said. “These powers currently exist.”
Dan Nusbaum, who owns Green Street Cafe in Champaign, said when he read the proposed ordinance Thursday evening, it “scared me a little bit.”
And Scott McIntosh, general manager of Big Grove Tavern in downtown Champaign, said the city could have better communicated its plans with the ordinance.
“A lot of folks I work with or who patronize our venue were very alarmed last night that there’s already an open discussion of seizing property and shutting off water,” he said. “Prioritizing the community communication needs to be critical for us, both as citizens and as workers who work with you, as opposed to inflame fears right out of the gate.”
David acknowledged the communication could have been improved.
“You are absolutely right,” she said. “The kind of lack of information, by leading with an action before communication, is causing probably undue concern.”
The expansive powers in the ordinance spread quickly online, with the clause allowing a restriction on firearm sales leading the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association to issue a “National Alert.”
Later in the day, the city tried to clean up, issuing a statement that it doesn’t plan to take anyone’s guns.
“To be clear, there is currently no firearm ban and no intent to seize property or close businesses,” the city’s statement said. “Additionally, there are no restrictions on the sale of alcohol or gas or the ability to enter or leave Champaign.”
And David hopped on the WDWS NewsHour to allay those fears.
“We’ve been fielding calls all day,” she said. “The purpose of the order is to give the city the flexibility so that we can thoughtfully and responsibly continue to serve the community.”
And she insisted the city won’t violate the Constitution.
“The First Amendment, the Second Amendment, all the rights of people are absolutely protected, and this emergency order does not give us the authority to overstep those bounds,” she said. “And things like intent to seize property — somebody today was concerned about turning off of water — those things are not going to be necessary by what is going on in this particular public health crisis as much as we can anticipate.
“That is not the purpose of this at all,” she said.
But regardless of the city’s intent, Illinois Press Association attorney Don Craven said the language of the ordinance appears to violate state law, if not the U.S. Constitution.
“By what authority does the city get to seize personal property?” he wondered.
And he said if the city doesn’t plan to use certain emergency powers, “it begs the question of why do it in the first place.”
In particular, he was concerned about the ordinance letting the city council meet online, which he said would violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“You need a physical quorum of the members of the public body,” he said.
David said that section was included because “if suddenly there’s an illness outbreak, and I can’t get all the city council members to attend because we have people in isolation, or it would become a threat to public health for us to convene in that way, we need to have the flexibility to establish electronic communications because the council must legally act to continue governing the city.”
But Craven said it’s still a violation of state law.
“We all agree that in order to have relief from the quorum provision of the Open Meetings Act, it would take a legislative change, and we’re working on drafting one,” Craven said.